Jarnkrok set to return to lineup as Maple Leafs look to put halt to two-game slide

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Fresh off losing in regulation in consecutive games for the first time this season, Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe could afford a smile during practice on Monday.

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There was diligent winger Calle Jarnkrok on the ice at the Ford Performance Centre, hard at work with his teammates for the first time since being forced out of the lineup on Nov. 30 with a groin injury. 

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Jarnkrok was on the second line with captain John Tavares and Mitch Marner, filling the space left by the miscast and underwhelming Denis Malgin, who was traded earlier in the day to the Colorado Avalanche. 

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“Great to see him back out there,” Keefe said, referring to Jarnkrok. “We’ve missed him. You can see it in the practice — a veteran NHL player who moves his feet, can make a pass, can shoot a puck. He will make a difference to our lineup.

“We started playing him with those guys before he got hurt. We thought there were positive signs there and then it gets interrupted. It made perfect sense to go right back to it.”

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The Leafs were 4-2-1 in the games missed by Jarnkrok, who should bring some balance back to the forward group. Against the Tampa Bay Lightning, a club that arrives at Scotiabank Arena on Tuesday night riding a five-game winning streak, the Leafs will have to be on point. 

Barring an unforeseen setback, Jarnkrok will be in the lineup. He indicated he had been dealing with a groin issue for some time before it became bad enough that he had to leave the game against San Jose three weeks ago. 

“It’s good to be back, had a good practice and felt good,” Jarnkrok said. “I kind of tweaked it the first trip and then it got worse from there. It has been getting better and better every day, and (Monday) I felt back to normal.

“It’s always tough to be on the side. You want to be in it, you want to want to play with the guys, but they did a great job. That made it a little bit easier.”

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The Leafs have brushed up against the first bit of adversity since the end of October, when a four-game losing streak (including two in overtime) had some calling for significant changes. That didn’t happen, and the Leafs went 15-1-4 in their next 20 games before losing on the road last week in New York against the Rangers and then in Washington against the Capitals. 

What has to be cleaned up by the Leafs?

“We can do a better job of breaking the puck out,” veteran defenceman Mark Giordano said. “In Washington, they made it real hard on us with their forecheck. I think it’s going to be the same (Tuesday). We have to make sure that we’re getting back there and making good plays to get the puck into our forwards’ hands so they can transition through the neutral zone.”

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Not only has Tampa been on a solid run, it has not given up a heck of a lot. In winning five in a row, the Lightning has outscored its opponents 24-7 and has not given up more than two goals in a game. It will be the second of three meetings between the Leafs and Lightning in 2022-23. On Dec. 3 in Tampa, the Lightning won 4-3 in overtime to cap a back-and-forth game between a couple of highly competitive Atlantic Division rivals.

The second-place Leafs are three points up on Tampa, which has two games in hand.

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“We played two good teams on the road and two teams that just like us were confident, playing well, prepared to play the game and to make it hard on us,” Keefe said. “Both games we end up trailing and trying to climb your way out of what is a tough thing to do, especially on the road.

“Any time things haven’t gone well for us, it’s how we have moved the puck on our half of the ice. That’s an area of focus for us. I do think we’ve improved dramatically in that area, and that coincides with the results that we got through November. 

“Now, we’re going to play a very good Tampa team. It’s another team that’s playing well with lots of confidence, so we’re expecting another difficult game.”

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